Aurora Borealis Research in the Arctic: Insights from Svalbard

Historically, the first scientific studies of the aurora borealis were expeditions to the northern regions of Norway. The conditions were harsh and the research laborious. Today however, the research of the aurorae is different, being almost exclusively conducted remotely using large datasets of auroral images from the so-called all-sky cameras. These datasets allow us to study the aurorae with automated methods, and have greatly increased our knowledge of the aurora borealis, both with statistics and fine auroral structures.
Snowy landscape from Svalbard, left and right mountain slopes.
A view to Longyearbyen. Photo: Jussi Laitinen

However, the dynamics of the aurorae are known to be complex and fundamentally coupled to the large and dynamic system of plasma and electric currents in the near-Earth space. Thus, even more than century later from the first expeditions, the aurora borealis remains as an active focus of research.

I was fortunate to do course and a research visit for a period of six weeks at the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS) in Longyearbyen. Now, before I introduce the research, I should probably write a few words about the island itself, since as a destination Svalbard is rather exotic.

Directly upon arriving, the arctic does not seem like a very welcoming place. The first sight from the plane window is the frozen sea meeting the snow covered rocky mountains. Indeed, very beautiful, but ruthless for a human being. Fortunately, Longyearbyen as a place quickly shows the opposite. The cold and dark arctic nature is contradicted with warm modern buildings, vehicles and equipment. Especially during the polar night, when even the nearby mountains stop being visible, Longyearbyen looks and feels like a regular town only somewhat smaller. However, the arctic is always still right there where the lights end. I found this to be fascinating.

Studies from two different perspectives

The course was about polar magnetospheric substorms. We learned about the theory, various methods, and instruments to study substorms. We also visited the EISCAT Svalbard Radar and the Kjell Henriksen Observatory located near Longyearbyen. The course was a success, and the other students who attended the course were wonderful.

After the course I had a couple of weeks to collaborate with Prof. Noora Partamies in UNIS. The research was about two auroral parameters that can be automatically computed from an auroral image: the peak emission height and the arciness of the aurora. These parameters were already computed in other studies published in 2013 and 2014. The peak emission height gives information of the energy of the precipitating particles, and the arciness about the morphology of the aurora, which is affected by magnetospheric substorms and different auroral forms. We were interested how the direction of the magnetic field carried by the solar wind affects these parameters in the arctic region of Svalbard and in the mainland of Fennoscandia.

The idea for this collaboration came from a separate study conducted by us in the Space Physics and Astronomy research unit at the University of Oulu, where in the ICONIC project we studied how the east-west magnetic field orientation of the magnetic field carried by the solar wind affects the auroral electron precipitation in space. These precipitating electrons are the same particles that end up into the Earth’s upper atmosphere, exciting the atoms and producing light in the process. That is, causing the aurora.

The underlying physical phenomenon in both studies is essentially the same but studied from two different perspectives. In fact, both studies produced their own respective results, because the data and research methods were very different. The auroral electron precipitation was studied by using in-situ electron flux measurements of satellites of the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program, whereas the auroral parameters were from auroral imaging cameras from the surface of the Earth. This actually emphasizes how useful and important it is to a space physicist of today to know different data sources and methods to form the best possible scientific understanding of the near-Earth space. This is why I found the collaboration to be immensely useful, since it allowed me to learn new methods quickly, and overall increase my knowledge on the research of the aurora borealis.


Jussi Laitinen is a Doctoral Researcher at the Space Physics and Astronomy research unit at the University of Oulu.